Sure, a blue box from Tiffany takes your breath away. And a convertible parked in the driveway with a bow on it is, well, hard to top.
But sometimes a holiday gift with a handmade quality can mean just as much--or at least convince your friends that, yes, you do have some skills in the kitchen.
Earlier in the year we asked our readers for their favorite gifts of food, and the responses came pouring in. Here are the best of them. While they may not have the drama (or monetary value) of a diamond ring, there are some real gems among them.
After all, at a time when all things homey are in, who wouldn't gush over a jar of homemade pickles? And if anyone looked disappointed opening a tin of nuts candied on your home stove, then surely the Grinch has been called in.
Cynthia Smith of Venice began making her Savory Almonds at least 20 years ago from a recipe she thinks was clipped from The Times. That was at a time in her life when she was unemployed and didn't have a lot of money but still wanted to give holiday gifts. The Santa Monica farmers market had just opened, and she discovered big bags of almonds. Now try going a Christmas without them in her family. Smith's gifts of almonds have seen her through thick and, now, the return of thin. She recently was laid off by her Silicon Valley employer.
It's hard to imagine a better return on your time. None of these recipes takes more than an hour's work (the nut recipes are put together in only five minutes). And once you start giving gifts of food, you can't stop--or you'll hear about it.
Michaela Rosenthal of Woodland Hills is practically ordered by her bingo group to bring her Chewy Ginger-Sour Cherry Biscotti to their dessert table every year. And she's been making her Chocolate Pecan Turtles for 20 years. "These presents not only reflect the personality of the giver, they tend to make the receiver feel extra special," Rosenthal says.
For the last several years, Eloise Tolar of Ontario has been making four kinds of flavored walnuts-minted, spiced, honey-candied and sherried--for her gifts every year. (Minted and spiced are presented here.)
"This is new to me. Now that I'm retired and the kids are grown, I have time to make them," she says of the nuts, made from her mother's "Diamond Walnut Favorite Recipes" recipe book. She enjoys planning how to wrap them, and this year is considering even more recipe variations.
If this is your first go-round making food gifts, it's a good idea to start simple. But even the jams and chutneys can be made by a beginning cook. They only take a bit of extra effort when it comes to sealing them in jars.
One recipe, from Dorothy Rose of Victorville, whose daughter urged her to share it, is for Refrigerator Pickles. They're just stored in the refrigerator; no canning required. She makes them with red bell peppers and green pickling cucumbers for Christmas, then switches to yellow bell peppers for Easter.
Once you get a few Christmases under your belt, gifts of food become second nature. Johanna Roe of Newport Beach has been cooking and canning her Cranberry Jam since the mid-1970s when a neighbor shared the recipe; it is now Christmas tradition. "It's always enjoyed by all who receive it as it's so much a part of the holiday season," she says. "And it's so easy to make!"
When people taste the Maryland Relish that Phyllis Soza of Altadena has prepared the last 10 Christmas seasons, they always say the same thing: "I haven't had any of this since my grandmother made it." Could be; she got the green tomato and cabbage relish from an old church cookbook.
For Christy Cowell of Los Angeles, gratification comes after the jars of her Cranberry Sage Chutney are empty. "My friends who receive it every year have said that it doesn't last long enough," she says. She usually decorates the jars of the chutney, made from a New York magazine recipe clipped years ago, with Victorian-style canning labels and Christmas fabric cut to fit like bonnets.
Of course, once the chutney jar or pickle jar is empty, your friends are going to come back for more. And that's gratifying too. In this way, it really is better to give than to receive. As Smith, the nut-maker from Venice, says "It's that whole spirit of Christmas thing."
Preserving the Perishable Present
Follow these canning and sealing steps for the Cranberry Sage Chutney, Maryland Relish and Cranberry Jam.
Make sure you have clean jars and rims and fresh lids that have never been used. Dip every jar and lid (as well as any other implements that will touch the finished jam) into a large pot of boiling water for at least 3 minutes. Remove them to a baking sheet and keep them in a 250-degree oven until ready to use.
Ladle the cooked relish, chutney or jam into the jars, coming within 1/4 inch of the top (a wide-mouthed canning funnel makes this easy).
Wipe the threads of the jar clean and place the lid on top of the jar. Screw down the rim as tight as it will go.
Place the sealed jars in boiling water to cover for 10 minutes. Remove them to a sideboard and let cool. You should hear a repeated "plink-plink" as the cooling jars form the vacuum that seals the lid.
When the jars are cool, test each by pushing down in the center of the lid. There should be no flex in the lid. If there is, return the sealed jar to the boiling water for another round. Do not tighten the rims further.
Store in a cool, dark place such as a pantry. For more information on home canning, check the Alltrista Corp. Web site, at www.homecanning.com/usa.
It's a Wrapping
OK, you've got the recipes, but where to get the packaging?
* Home centers. Look for empty paint cans that you can pack with goodies and wrap.
* Imports stores. Places such as Cost Plus World Market and Pier One Imports are packed with seasonal items; we found a variety of jars as well as different Chinese takeout containers.
* Furniture and general merchandise stores. Furniture? Well, we mean IKEA. We found some cool nesting boxes.
* Kitchen stores. Their containers and bottles can be a bit costly, but filled with something edible and garnished with a ribbon, they can make a statement.
Cranberry Sage Chutney
Active Work and Total Preparation Time: 30 minutes
From Christy Cowell, Los Angeles.
6 cups cranberries
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 orange, unpeeled, chopped and seeded
1 cup orange juice
1 small onion, finely chopped
1/4 cup raisins
1/4 cup slivered almonds
12 dried dates, pitted and chopped
1/4 cup chopped crystallized ginger
1/2 cup cider vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground mustard
3 tablespoons chopped fresh sage, divided
Place the cranberries, sugar, orange, orange juice, onion, raisins, almonds, dates, ginger, cider vinegar, salt, mustard and 1 tablespoon of the sage in a non-aluminum saucepan and cook over medium-low heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Increase the heat and boil until the berries "pop" and the mixture thickens slightly, 5 to 10 minutes. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of sage.
The chutney will keep, refrigerated, for up to 6 months. Or ladle it into sterilized jars and can according to the instructions in the accompanying story.
1 3/4 quarts. Each tablespoon: 44 calories; 44 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 0 fat; 0 saturated fat; 12 grams carbohydrates; 0 protein; 0.88 gram fiber.
Chocolate Pecan Turtles
Active Work and Total Preparation Time: 40 minutes
From Michaela Rosenthal, Woodland Hills. You can use whatever chocolate suits your taste.
3/4 pound caramels
1 pound pecans, chopped
Nonstick cooking spray
1/2 pound chocolate
About 1/2 cup whole pecans (about 40 pecans)
Melt the caramels in the top of a double boiler set over, but not touching, simmering water, stirring occasionally.
Meanwhile, place 1 tablespoon each of chopped nuts on a baking sheet in mounds 1 inch apart. Spray both sides of 2 spoons with nonstick cooking spray. Using the spoons, drop about 1 tablespoon of melted caramel on top of each nut cluster. You may need to reheat the caramel if it gets too hard as you work.
Meanwhile, melt the chocolate in the top of a double boiler set over, but not touching, simmering water.
When the caramel has hardened, about 10 minutes, pick up each nut cluster (the nuts should be firmly attached to the bottom of the caramel), gently shake off any excess nut pieces and dip each turtle halfway into the melted chocolate. Place the turtles on wax paper and press a whole pecan onto each piece. Let cool, then store in an airtight container.
About 40 turtles. Each turtle: 150 calories; 22 mg sodium; 1 mg cholesterol; 12 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 12 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 1.64 gram fiber.
Active Work Time: 5 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 1 hour
From Cynthia Smith, Venice.
2 egg whites
1 1/2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
Dash hot pepper sauce
Dash cayenne pepper
4 cups blanched whole almonds
2/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Heat the oven to 300 degrees.
Whisk the egg whites in a large mixing bowl until frothy, then whisk in the mustard, hot pepper sauce and cayenne. Add the almonds and toss to coat evenly. Spread the cheese and salt on a piece of wax paper. Transfer the almonds with a slotted spoon onto the cheese and toss until the almonds are coated evenly and there is no cheese left on the paper.
Bake the nuts until browned, tossing several times, 25 minutes. Turn off the oven and leave the nuts in for 30 minutes longer.
4 cups. Each tablespoon: 58 calories; 82 mg sodium; 1 mg cholesterol; 5 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 2 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 0.96 gram fiber.
Chewy Ginger-Sour Cherry Biscotti
Active Work Time: 25 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 55 minutes
From Michaela Rosenthal, Woodland Hills.
1/3 cup oil
1/4 cup dark molasses
1 cup sugar, plus more for rolling
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup chopped macadamia nuts or peeled hazelnuts
1 cup dried sour cherries
1/2 cup minced crystallized ginger
Heat the oven to 350 degrees.
Beat together the oil, molasses, sugar and egg.
In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, ground ginger, cloves, cinnamon and salt. Stir the dry ingredients into the wet. Stir in the nuts, cherries and crystallized ginger.
Divide the dough in half and form each half into a log about 12 inches long and 2 inches wide. Press down on the dough to flatten slightly. Roll the logs in a little sugar. Place them on a nonstick baking sheet and bake in the upper third of the oven, 15 minutes.
Cool the logs 5 minutes, then cut them on the diagonal into 3/4-inch-thick slices. Lay the biscotti on 2 baking sheets and bake until they are still somewhat soft to the touch but dry, another 15 minutes.
Transfer the biscotti to a wire rack to cool. Store in an airtight container.
24 biscotti. Each biscotti: 159 calories; 104 mg sodium; 9 mg cholesterol; 6 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 28 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 0.96 gram fiber.
Active Work Time: 35 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 55 minutes plus 8 hours chilling
From Phyllis Soza, Altadena. If you can't find green tomatoes, substitute underripe tomatoes or ask your produce department to order them.
1 quart green tomatoes
1/4 cup salt, divided
2 quarts vinegar
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons ground turmeric
1/2 tablespoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon celery seeds
3/4 tablespoon mustard seeds
3/4 small green cabbage
5 onions, diced small
6 red bell peppers, seeded and diced small
Thinly slice the tomatoes. Place them in a large bowl. Add enough water to cover and 2 tablespoons of salt. Cover them and let stand overnight in the refrigerator.
Place the vinegar, sugar, turmeric, allspice, celery seeds, mustard seeds and 2 tablespoons of salt in a very large non-aluminum pan. Drain the tomatoes, then add them to the pan along with the cabbage, onions and peppers. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer until the vegetables are very soft, 10 to 15 minutes.
The relish will keep for several weeks refrigerated, otherwise ladle into sterilized jars and can it according to the instructions in the accompanying story.
6 quarts. Each 1/4 cup: 24 calories; 592 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 0 fat; 0 saturated fat; 6 grams carbohydrates; 0 protein; 0.94 gram fiber.
Active Work Time: 5 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 45 minutes
From Johanna Roe, Newport Beach.
3 1/2 cups fresh cranberries
2 cups water
1 (1-pound, 4-ounce) can crushed pineapple in heavy syrup, undrained
8 cups sugar
1 (3-ounce) pouch liquid pectin
Finely chop the cranberries using a food processor. Place the cranberries and water in a large non-aluminum saucepan. Simmer over medium-low heat for 5 minutes. Add the pineapple with its syrup and the sugar and stir well. Boil 2 minutes longer. Remove the pan from the heat and add the pectin. Mix well and let stand 25 minutes.
Pour the jam into sterilized jars and seal according to the instructions in the accompanying story.
10 (8-ounce) jars. Each tablespoon: 44 calories; 1 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 0 fat; 0 saturated fat; 11 grams carbohydrates; 0 protein; 0.18 gram fiber.
Active Work and Total Preparation Time: 10 minutes plus 1 hour standing and 24 hours chilling
From Dorothy Rose, Victorville. The pickles will keep in the refrigerator for six weeks.
6 pickling cucumbers, sliced
1 onion, thinly sliced
1 red bell pepper, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon salt
2 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups vinegar
2 teaspoons celery seeds
2 teaspoons mustard seeds
Combine the cucumbers, onion and pepper in a nonmetallic bowl. Sprinkle with the salt and mix well. Let the vegetables stand 1 hour. Drain and return them to the same bowl.
Combine the sugar, vinegar and celery and mustard seeds in another nonmetallic bowl. Stir until the sugar is dissolved. Pour the vinegar mixture over the vegetables. Cover and chill 24 hours to blend the flavors.
8 cups. Each 1/4 cup: 57 calories; 222 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 0 fat; 0 saturated fat; 15 grams carbohydrates; 0 protein; 0.37 gram fiber.
Active Work Time: 5 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 20 minutes
From Eloise Tolar, Ontario.
1 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup water
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
6 large marshmallows
Few drops peppermint extract
2 1/2 cups walnut halves or large walnut pieces
Grease a baking sheet and set aside.
Combine the sugar, salt, water and corn syrup in a non-aluminum or heavy saucepan and bring to a boil. Cook until a candy thermometer inserted in the mixture reaches 236 degrees. Remove from the heat and add the marshmallows, stirring until melted. Add the peppermint and the walnuts and stir gently until the mixture is creamy and the nuts are well-coated.
Pour the nuts onto the baking sheet and separate using 2 forks.
2 1/2 cups. Each tablespoon: 92 calories; 20 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 6 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 9 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0.63 gram fiber.
Spiced Walnuts Variation: Bring 1 cup of sugar, 1/4 teaspoon of salt, 2 teaspoons of cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon of ground nutmeg, 1/2 teaspoon of ground cloves and 1/2 cup of water to a boil in a non-aluminum or heavy saucepan. Cook until a candy thermometer inserted in the mixture reaches 236 degrees. Remove the pan from the heat and add 2 cups of walnut halves or large pieces. Stir until the mixture is creamy and the nuts are well-coated. Turn the nuts onto a greased baking sheet and separate using 2 forks.
2 1/2 cups. Each tablespoon: 74 calories; 19 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 5 grams fat; 0 saturated fat; 7 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0.60 gram fiber.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun